On a day when Dan Martin led the Irish with a typically tough, battling performance, it was to Ecuador that the spoils went in the Olympic men’s cycling road race, Richard Carapaz making himself an everlasting national hero by winning his nation’s second gold medal in the history of the Games.
Martin was best of the Irish trio, coming home 16th in six hours, nine minutes and four seconds, 3:38 behind the winner after a grueling 234km journey to Fuji International Speedway.
After going for broke approaching the final climb, Dunbar faded in a big way over the final 20km and came home 76th, coasting to the finish one place behind teammate Nicolas Roche.
Martin’s best finish at the Games before this was his 13th-place finish at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and the 34-year-old made another bold bid to get among the medal contenders, only finding himself unable to match the star climbers on the key ascent with 40km to go.
Dunbar, meanwhile, made a bold showing at what was his first Games, the 24-year-old demonstrating why he appears capable of flying the flag for Irish cycling at Grand Tour level in the years to come.
A native of Banteer in Cork, the birthplace of two-time Olympic hammer throw champion Pat O’Callaghan, Dunbar seemed intent to make his own impact at Olympic level, positioning himself towards the front of the peloton for much of the race.
He had some early misfortune in the race, switching to his spare bike after a puncture soon after the start, while Martin also did well to stay in it, avoiding a crash involving some big names in Geraint Thomas and Nairo Quintana.
The 234km course took the 141 riders through a grueling test, with the temperatures in the low 30s and mid-afternoon sun beating down from above.
An early break of five riders built up a substantial lead as the Irish trio bided their time in the peloton, the leaders building a 16-minute advantage with 140km remaining, but that was quickly reduced once the field arrived on the lower slopes of Mount Fuji, with a spate of attacks emerging from the peloton.
Dunbar went on the attack himself with a little over 50km remaining, building a 30-second lead over the peloton along with Vincenzo Nibali and Remco Evenepoel before being reeled in.
The key climb arrived with a little over 40km remaining as they made the vicious 6.5km ascent towards Mikuni Pass, which averages 10.5% gradient, with sections at a stomach-churning 20%.
That was when two-time Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar made his first big move, going on the attack and joined by Canada’s Michael Woods and USA’s Brandon McNulty.
At this point Dunbar and Martin were working together, a little over a minute off the lead as they entered the final 25km.
The leading duo were soon joined by a group of four but with a little over 25km remaining Carapaz and McNulty broke clear again, working together to build a 44-second advantage with 13.5km to go.
Minutes later Carapaz made the decisive move, and from there it was a solo ride to the finish for the Ecuadorian, who raised his arms aloft as he crossed the line for a historic win for his home nation.
Belgium’s Wout van Aert took silver, with Slovenia’s Pogacar having to settle for bronze.